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BILL C-27 : PUBLIC SERVICE EMPLOYMENT ACT (SECOND READING)

Honourable senators, I am pleased to rise today to support Bill C-27, which will enhance hiring opportunities for current members of the Canadian Forces and our veterans.

I am pleased to support this bill, which will increase access to hiring opportunities for current Canadian Forces members and veterans.

It has only been a few weeks since we came together as Canadians to express our heartfelt sorrow and gratitude for the men and women in uniform who serve our country.

We have enhanced and will continue to enhance opportunities and provisions for our veterans when they serve and as they transition to civilian life. The veterans hiring act builds on previous commitments of our government to help veterans find meaningful employment after their time in the military is complete.

The Veterans Hiring Act builds on commitments the government made to help veterans find meaningful employment once their military service has ended.

As outlined in Budget 2014, our government is proposing changes to the Public Service Employment Act to enhance opportunities for veterans in the federal public service.

The changes proposed in the veterans hiring act add to the considerable efforts our government has made over the past few years to increase and improve services to our veterans. These efforts have included hiring more mental health professionals, investing in and exploring new treatment options, like service dogs, and working to reduce the stigma associated with mental health. We are also cutting red tape and enhancing the way we deliver our services to ensure our veterans receive the full care and support they deserve. We now offer up-front payments for grounds maintenance and housekeeping services under the Veterans Independence Program. This change eliminated a cumbersome paperwork system for close to 100,000 veterans, survivors and primary caregivers.

We also launched the Veterans Benefits Browser, allowing users to more readily determine which programs and benefits they may be entitled to.

Colleagues, through eight budgets, our government has earmarked more than $5 billion in new funding for veterans benefits and services — more than any other government in Canadian history.

Just recently, our government announced new and expanded mental health initiatives for veterans, members of the military community and their families.

First and foremost, we will expand the network of operational stress injury clinics and fund a brand new clinic in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Opening in the fall of 2015, this clinic will bring high-quality, specialized mental health services and supports to veterans in the Halifax and Maritime areas. It joins the 10 already-existing specialized clinics funded by Veterans Affairs across Canada, as well as the seven operated by the Department of National Defence. Each of these clinics has a team of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, mental health nurses and other specialists who understand the experiences and needs of our veterans.

Additionally, a satellite office will be set up in Montreal, while the existing satellite offices in the Greater Toronto Area will be expanded. Both offices will offer specialized care close to veterans' homes, allowing better access to assessment, diagnosis and treatment services.

Our government will also spend more money in the Operational Stress Injury Social Support Program. This means 15 new peer support coordinators can be hired to meet the needs of the military community as well as veterans and their families. Additionally, it will allow the program to increase its outreach to those in need.

On a trial basis, access to the Military Family Resource Centres will be expanded to include medically-releasing Canadian Forces personnel and their families. Traditionally, the services and programs offered through the centres have been available only to still-serving members of the military.

As well, a mental health first aid training course will be developed and offered across the country for veterans and their families. This training will help increase awareness of the various kinds of mental health conditions so that individuals can respond earlier or intervene when a veteran or a family member is in crisis.

These larger-scale projects will be accompanied by a number of smaller investments in areas such as developing national standards for psychiatric service dogs; hiring a psychologist to provide expertise and be the deputy chair of the new military and veterans mental health centre of excellence; and researching the connection between operational stress injuries and the mental health of veterans' families.

Colleagues, our government remains committed to improving the mental health of Canada's veterans and their families. These kinds of initiatives not only provide support but also allow for stability in the lives of those who have served our country and wish to return to society and live a normal life.

The veterans hiring act and its regulations are another step the government is taking to make the kinds of changes we need to support our veterans both while they serve and when they transition to civilian life. We know our veterans often face difficulties during this transition period. The civilian workplace is very different from the military, and many veterans face barriers trying to demonstrate how their military skill sets will translate to other occupations.

The veterans hiring act helps address this by providing a priority hiring process for veterans in the federal public service. The amendments presented in this bill will create a five-year statutory priority entitlement for Canadian veterans who are medically released for service-related reasons — our injured veterans. In plain language, this means veterans will be first in line for jobs as they become available in the civil service.

Full-time regular and reserve force veterans who are medically released for non-service-related reasons will see their existing priority entitlement period extended from the current two years to five. This will also allow them a longer period of priority entitlement for positions which they are qualified to fill.

Military personnel and veterans with at least three years of military service will be able to compete for internally-advertised positions in the federal public service until five years after being honourably released.

Honourably-released veterans with at least three years of military service will be given hiring preference on external federal public service hiring processes until five years after being released.

Once this proposed legislation is passed, it will be made retroactive to April 1, 2012. This means a veteran who previously had priority status under the regulations and lost that status because it expired will have it reinstated with a full five-year entitlement. The same principle applies for any veteran who still has priority entitlement. We will extend it for an additional five years.

Eligible veterans who are recovering from their injuries or illnesses have up to five years to be certified as fit to work within the military. This bill will give them up to 10 years to find a job in the federal public service, if they wish.

Colleagues, this bill is about providing veterans with job and career opportunities outside the military, in recognition of their service and the sacrifices they have made on Canada's behalf.

On average each year, approximately 7,600 Canadian Armed Forces regular and reserve forces personnel leave the military, including approximately 1,000 who are medically released. These veterans have the skills, the training and work experience to make them exceptionally strong candidates for federal public service jobs. The new measures in this bill will give veterans and releasing Canadian Forces personnel the ability to apply for internally-posted positions, and give qualified veterans preference over other candidates in external hiring processes.

The veterans hiring act is yet another way we can continue to honour our veterans in a meaningful and practical way. I call upon all senators to support me in moving these important changes forward.